April 30, 2021 11 min read

Day hikes may not seem nearly as intense as multi-day backpacking trips, and that is true to an extent—while backpacking and camping do require more packing and preparing, the principles of getting ready for a day hike are more or less the same. Just minus the tent.

It’s a common mistake to assume that you can show up to the trailhead without the proper supplies. Don’t let this be you. Even a casual day hike, done well, requires some prepping and packing. This day hiking checklist will show you everything you will need to safely enjoy the great outdoors on your next hiking trip.

Read on to learn:

Remember: You don’t have to be over-the-top with your packing, but you do need to make sure that you’re not taking unnecessary risks by hitting the trail empty-handed. Packing the right safety gear, clothing, and food goes a long way toward a safe and enjoyable hiking experience. Here are the things you will need with you (we broke up this list with must-have items and nice-to-have items) when you embark on your next day hike.


Gotta Have It


A “daypack” that is about 20 liters in volume is a perfect size for day hikes. It will provide ample space for your essentials and food, but won’t be too big to weigh you down as you hike. 

Note: Keep reading to check out our guide on deciding what sized backpack you should use.

First Aid Kit

When it comes to first aid, a simple kit will do just fine. Antihistamines, bandaids, bug spray, matches, and poison ivy treatment are invaluable when you need them, so make sure you have those items in your kit. 


Download trail maps on your phone or go the old-fashioned route and bring a paper map and compass. No matter what type of navigation, make sure you have something to help you find your way in case you lose sight of the trail.

Take It Or Leave It

Trekking Poles

Helpful for steep trails, trekking poles can take the impact off of your knees when heading up and downhill. Some hikers find they get in the way more than they help, so it’s up to your personal preference, skill, and comfort level on the trails whether or not you bring them. 

Toilet Paper and Hygiene Products

Your need for toilet paper and other hygiene products will depend on the length of your hike. Just remember that if you plan to be on the trail for more than a few hours, bathrooms won’t be nearby.

Headlamp and Flashlight

Again, you probably won’t need a headlamp or flashlight on shorter hikes, but the sun does set faster behind large hills and mountains. Also, it’s best to be on the safe side and pack one if you’re going on a longer day hike, just in case.


On short day hikes, what clothing you wear and pack isn’t very important. A 3-mile hike is likely going to be fine whether you wear jeans, leggings, shorts, or high-tech hiking pants. Longer hikes, too, might not necessitate you being decked out in the latest hiker-wear. However, if you were to start a hiking wardrobe from scratch and want to ensure you’re prepared for anything—even cold weather, you should have the following:

Gotta Have It

Long Pants

A pair of breathable hiking pants will be more comfortable than shorts, even in the hottest weather. Sunburn, scrapes, and poison ivy are each less of a concern when you’re wearing pants.

Long Shirt

Merino wool and polyester are great materials for hiking shirts. They’re light, breathable, and wicks sweat away from your body. Unless it’s dreadfully hot, long sleeves are usually the way to  go, for the same reason that pants are better than shorts. Plus, hiking at higher altitudes can get cold, fast—it’s better to sweat a little at the bottom of a mountain than it is to freeze at the top. 

Hiking Socks

The same materials, wool and polyester, make for the best hiking socks, too. Crossing streams and walking through mud is less impactful if the socks you’re wearing won’t be soaked for the rest of the day (as they would be with cotton). You should also look for socks that are at least ankle length, preferably longer. That way, your ankles are protected from thorns, brambles, etc. 

Boots or Trail Running Shoes

It doesn’t matter too much whether you choose trail running shoes or hiking boots. What’s important is that your shoes have the appropriate amount of traction and toughness to get you up and over rocks, mud, logs, and whatever else may lie in your path. Hiking boots offer more ankle support, and trail running shoes are lighter; outside of that, their performance is roughly the same.  

Note: Keep reading to learn what clothing items you should avoid wearing.

Take It Or Leave It

Hat and Sunglasses

Accessory items such as hats and sunglasses aren’t a necessity exactly, but you’ll almost certainly use them if you bring them—and you may likely miss them if you forget them. Unless you’re hiking in extreme temperatures or at very high altitudes (above 8,000 feet), though, they aren’t absolutely necessary.

Winter Gear

Snowsuits, goggles, parkas, and other winter-specific gear are things you will need when the temperatures dip below freezing. If you’re doing a cold-weather day hike, you can use our winter backpacking checklist to make sure you’ve got all the gear you need.


To your ankles what a coat is to your upper body, gaiters add an extra layer of protection against the elements. If it’s going to be exceptionally muddy, snowy, or wet, gaiters will keep your feet dry and comfortable. 

Bonus: Clothing Tips

  1. Cotton is rotten: If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times. And we know we've said it before. Cotton clothing is suitable for short, light intensity hikes, but nothing more. It holds onto water and sweat, does little to protect against cold temperatures, and can get quite stinky as the day wears on. If you’re looking for high-quality hiking gear, look for wool, polyester, and other fabrics that are built for performance. 
  2. Layers are your friend: Layering thin shirts with light jackets, T-shirts with flannels, and so on is the best way to be prepared for any weather changes. Temperatures and conditions are hard to predict the farther from civilization (and the higher up) you are, and dressing in a few simple layers makes it easy to adapt.
  3. Better overdressed than underdressed: While you don’t want to be so overdressed that you’re bogged down by all the clothing you’re wearing, it’s still better to shed unnecessary layers on the trail than it is to be stuck without them. 

Food and Water

Gotta Have It


At a bare minimum, bring 1 liter of water with you on a day hike. If you’re hiking more than a few miles, it’s a good idea to have more. You’ll be more thirsty on the trail than you would be at home, so make sure you’ve got enough fluids. On top of that, extra water will be immensely valuable if anything happens and you’re trapped overnight waiting for help. 

Snacks and Meals

What you bring, and how much, is largely up to your own judgment. You'll need something to keep your energy levels up, so make sure you add enough snacks to your day hiking checklist. Salty and protein-heavy foods are the best trail snacks; they are quickly turned into energy and the salt helps replenish the sodium your body loses by sweating. 

Take It Or Leave It

Extra Food

If you’re hiking far from civilization or in an unfamiliar area, it’s a good idea to have a little bit of extra food in case of emergencies. 

Water Filtration

Having some iodine tablets, a LifeStraw, or any other method for purifying water lets you carry less water because you can refill as you hike. It’s also very helpful in case of emergencies—you can survive a lot longer if you have a source of clean water.

Bonus: Food and Drink Tips

  1. Eat dense, not heavy: Avoid packing “heavy” foods that will sit in your gut and make you feel lethargic. Dairy products or large amounts of bread and meat are great for post-hike foods, but they’ll give you a stomachache on the trail. Try to stick to lean foods such as nuts, oats, and energy bars.
  2. Salt and sugar: On a normal day, going overboard on sodium and added sugar is not the best idea. When you’re on an intense hike, however, salt and sugar are your friends. The salt replenishes what you lose from sweat, helping you feel hydrated (as long as you’re drinking water, too). The sugar acts like an instant energy boost that can make it a little bit easier to crank out the last mile or two—don’t worry, you’ll burn it almost as soon as you eat it.

Frequently Asked Questions: Day Hiking Essentials

What’s the Difference Between Day Hiking and Backpacking?

“If I’m loading all this stuff into a backpack, am I not backpacking at this point?” For beginners, a lot of hiking and outdoor terminology can be confusing. Hiking, and more specifically day hiking, turns into backpacking only when you are spending the night on the trail. 

When backpacking, you need a much larger pack (usually 40 liters at minimum) so that you can fit your tent and sleeping system, usually consisting of a 15-degree down sleeping bag or synthetic sleeping bag and light sleeping pad along with extra food and clothing. 

Day hiking is a great way to get into hiking as a beginner or to prep for a longer backpacking trip. These hikes can be as intense or leisurely as you like; the only thing that distinguishes day hiking and backpacking is whether or not you plan to stay the night in the woods. If you’re planning an overnight trip, read our overnight backpacking checklist to make sure you’ve got everything you need. 

How Long Should a Day Hike Be?

The length of a “day hike” in terms of distance is hard to define because it depends on the person hiking, as well as the trail. While some seasoned thru-hikers (people who have hiked long trails like the Appalachian Trail) can do 25 miles in a day, most people cannot. 

The average for a long day hike, for most people in average physical shape, is about 12 miles. If the area you are hiking in is especially mountainous, that number might be lower; if you are hiking in flat areas, it may be higher. 

Generally, when people refer to “day hiking,” they are talking about hikes that last between 3 and 10 hours total. Hikes that last less than three hours can still be called day hikes, but most people refer to them as “short hikes.” It’s a very minor distinction, but helpful nonetheless.

What Are the “Ten Essentials” and Do I Need Them?

The Ten Essentials, since being published in a mountaineering book decades ago, have become the standard for emergency preparedness in any camping, backpacking, or hiking situation. But, if you’re only hiking 5 miles just outside your hometown, do you really need to pack emergency shelter and an extra day’s supply of food, as recommended?

The truth is, if you aren’t hiking overnight, the Ten Essentials (navigation, headlamp, sub protection, first aid, knife, fire, shelter, extra food, extra water, and extra clothes) don’t make much sense to prioritize in your packing. Packing all 10 of them would add too much excess weight to your backpack, and you'll likely end up carrying things you’ll never need. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared. Rather, you should prepare in proportion to the size of a potential emergency.

For example, if you’re hiking in a semi-familiar area near your home and will have cell service, you don’t need to worry much. On the other hand, if you’re in a brand new place, taking a full day hike without cell service, you should focus more on the 10 essentials. If the potential severity of an emergency is high, bring more survival items. If it’s low, just make sure you tell someone where you’re going and know how to get out of trouble should it arise.

What Size Backpack Should I Use?

Shopping for backpacks is a journey of its own. There exists a seemingly impossible number of choices when it comes to brands, features, and even colors. There are two considerations you should give the most important when looking for the right backpack. The first is fit, the second is volume. 

If a pack fits your body, that's the first green light. The second consideration, volume, takes a bit more thought. A 75-liter pack is perfect for long backpacking trips lasting longer than 5 nights; for a day hike, it’s overkill (and then some). Yet, a 20-liter pack, while great for day hikes, is pretty useless on anything but the simplest overnight. 

If you plan to get into backpacking, it’s best to get a pack that’s at least 35 liters in volume. It’s small enough for day hikes, but still has enough room for a tent and sleeping bag when you want to get away for a little bit longer.

How Do You Prepare for a Day Hike?

Getting ready for a day hike is more about planning than anything else. First, choose your trail wisely: Research the trail’s elevation, distance, and weather conditions to make sure it fits your level of fitness and experience.

If you aren’t big on exercising, you’ll also need to prepare your body. In the days leading up to your hike, do some exercises that’ll help keep your joints loose and muscles ready. Go for a walk or jog, do some yoga, or lift weights; it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do something. This will help you enjoy the hike without feeling too much stiffness or pain due to the sudden increase in physical demand.

What Are the Advantages of “Ultralight” Packing?

Many people, when they first pack for a hike or backpacking trip, realize that they’ve packed far more than they’ll ever need. Packing things you don’t need means you’re carrying unnecessary weight that’ll tire you out on the trail. For this reason, a growing trend among hikers is the “ultralight” philosophypacking as light as possible. 

Ultralight hikers and backpackers go to some extreme lengths to save weight: packing few extra clothes, spending hundreds of dollars on lighter equipment, and even filing down their toothbrushes to make them lighter. But, does all that effort to cut weight actually help?

There is a distinct advantage to packing lightyou can go farther, faster, without getting tired. Ultralight hiking is easier on the knees and hips; 10 pounds on your back is much less impactful than 40. Plus, you feel a lot closer to nature when you pack only the absolute essentials. If you have a desire to be a bit more wild and rough it on the trail, ultralight packing might be right up your alley. 

However, devoting your energy and money to becoming a true ultralight convert isn’t worth the effort. At the end of the day, a backpack that weighs half a pound more doesn’t make that much of a difference. Don’t get sidetracked by feeling the need to purchase only the lightest possible gear and leave certain comforts at homekeep your pack light, but within reason.

What Items Should I Not Wear Hiking?

Your wardrobe is one of the most important factors in determining your comfort on a hike. More than that, wearing the right clothing can also keep you safe (especially footwear). With that in mind, here are a few things that you’re better off leaving at home:

  • Tennis or gym shoes: They’re great for working out and playing sports, but not for the trail. You won’t get nearly as much traction on slippery, steep parts of the trail. Plus, they lack ankle support. It’s best to get a good pair of hiking boots or trail running shoes. 
  • Cotton shirts: As we’ve already mentioned, cotton becomes much less comfortable when you’re sweaty and takes ages to dry when it gets wet. Ditch your cotton clothes for performance fabrics and you won’t regret it.
  • Denim: Jeans are perfect for a day in the city, but a total nuisance when hiking. They get hot easily, lack flexibility, and (since they’re made from cotton), they dry very slowly. Grab a pair of hiking pants or performance leggings for a much better experience.
  • Short socks: Unless you’re someone who enjoys cuts and scrapes on your ankles, leave your no-shows at home. Long hiking socks give you the protection that you’ll never realize you need unless you don’t have it. 

Final Thoughts: What to Bring on a Day Hike

Day hiking, though not as intense as long-distance backpacking, still requires a bit of advanced planning and a solid checklist. We covered everything you need (and a little that you don’t) on our day hiking checklistuse it to make sure you’re ready when you reach the trailhead. Do you have any questions about the list or suggestions on something we could add? Let us know in the comments section below!

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.